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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2068

Mr MORRISON (12:02 PM) —I thank the shadow special minister of state and member for Mackellar for her contribution to this debate at the outset. I note, as the member for Melbourne Ports leaves the chamber, that she is always elegant in her word, in her deed and, as I am sure all members agree, in her dress. A classier member of this parliament I think there is not.

Citizenship carries with it responsibilities. Those responsibilities, I think, are celebrated when we hold citizenship ceremonies—and we all in this place attend many of those ceremonies. Some time ago I made some remarks highlighting the need for us to continue to embrace this idea of affirmation ceremonies, where those of us who have become Australian by birth rather than by oath or affirmation have the opportunity to reassert our commitment to our responsibilities of citizenship with those who are taking it for the first time. I think there is an extraordinary commonality in that gesture which I would like to see us all celebrate more and more.

We do have responsibilities. We talk a lot about our rights as citizens, but we also have to talk about our responsibilities. Our citizenship ceremonies are a great opportunity to do that. These rights include, probably above all things, the franchise—the ability to cast our vote. As a country that some 100 years ago was in the minority of world experience in being a parliamentary democracy, we are increasing our numbers these days. As we look at events around the world we are hopeful that more countries will join that list of democracies where people have their say. This opportunity—this right; indeed, this obligation—to exercise that franchise is undoubtedly the thing which people prize most, and should prize most, as Australian citizens. We have many other great rights and responsibilities, from freedom of religion to all other things, and we celebrate those through our citizenship.

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010 contains some changes to how these rights and responsibilities will operate when it comes to the franchise. I want to refer to some remarks I made in August 2009, when I was a member of the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, around my analysis of the numbers of the previous election in terms of just how seriously many in this country are taking their right to vote. I said at that time:

… there was one central fact before the committee that we wrestled with, and that was the issue of those who do not vote because they did not enrol to vote, who did not show up to vote or who did not fulfil their responsibilities to vote properly on the day.

When you add up the people who fell into that category in that election in 2007, based on the information provided by the AEC, there were 2.4 million Australians—that is, 2.4 million Australians who would have otherwise been eligible to vote either did not enrol, did not show up or did not vote in accordance with our laws. My speech continued:

There were around 1.138 million who did not enrol to vote, 715,000 who did not show up although they were on the roll, and 510,000 who failed to complete their ballot properly. This is actually an improvement on the situation in 2004, but the fact that one in seven voters—

at the 2007 election—

in a system of compulsory voting in this country do not exercise their franchise because they have not chosen to, they did not get it right or they could not be bothered is, I think, a genuine issue of concern.

It is an issue of serious concern in a parliamentary democracy such as ours.

I support compulsory voting. I think compulsory voting has been good for this country. The polity of the voting systems that we see in other jurisdictions has a different character to it. I welcome the character of the polity of our system of compulsory voting. But compulsory voting should not be a licence for passive democracy. It should not be the opportunity for a lazy franchise. If anything, it should be a reassertion by citizens of their need to engage with their responsibility to vote. We have to be very careful in this place to not do things that say, ‘If you cannot be bothered, if you do not make the effort, if you do not come along on the day, if you do not follow the rules of how to vote, you will be able to just somehow be let through the door anyway.’

We have rules around how democracy works, and rules around elections are incredibly important. People in this place have gone all over the world in times past and continue to do so today to observe the conduct of elections elsewhere. It is something we feel strongly about. It is something we commit our people to overseas to ensure that other countries can enjoy the same freedoms that we have in this country.

So why would we be contemplating lowering the bar on the obligations of our citizens who might otherwise seek a free pass when they will not take the steps that our laws require them to? This is what I think we risk here with the provision relating to the change to the close of rolls. The government has made this argument time and again—as have others outside this place, including various advocacy groups—and it was raised in the 2007 review of the election, and the numbers just do not support the argument. As the shadow minister said, in 2004, the AEC’s own submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters said that 168,394 people missed out on voting. In 2007, that number was 100,370. Australia’s democracy requires people to register to vote, as they should, by the time they turn 18 and to maintain their enrolment properly, as our law requires. If what was changed under the Howard government was such an assault on that right, then I would have expected to see those numbers showing the opposite, but they did not.

Mr Dreyfus —You disagree with the report, do you?

Mr MORRISON —It did not. It did not say that. What it said was that more people enrolled, particularly through the campaign run by the AEC in that year—and it was an outstanding campaign; it said to prize your vote, enrol to vote. And that would be my message to every Australian: enrol to vote. Do not enrol to vote just because you think an election might be coming up next week, next month or next year. You are a citizen of this country: enrol to vote. I am sure that in our electorate offices we all have enrolment forms available to people. We all talk about it when we go into our schools, and we should. But what we should not be saying is: even if you cannot be bothered, if you cannot go, if you are not interested, if it is something you do not really want to think about, we can somehow change the rules for you. I think we have to draw a line under these sorts of things.

There are clear laws and rules as to how our democracy operates. It is not an unreasonable requirement to ask any citizen of this country to take a form, fill it out properly and send it to the Australian Electoral Commission. I do not think this is an onerous requirement. I do not think it is burdensome. The fact that fewer people missed out on voting in 2007 than in 2004 demonstrates that the measures that were introduced by the Howard government in no way impeded that task. There was evidence given by the Australian Electoral Commission that the 2007 election gave them more administrative opportunities to focus on the integrity of the roll—which is a very important responsibility that they have in administering our electoral system. I think that having to deal with a rush of enrolments on the eve of an election because people, frankly, could not be bothered to do it earlier puts the AEC under unreasonable strain at a time when they are preparing to oversee and conduct the most important democratic event that takes place in this country on a regular basis.

That is why the coalition continue to keep faith with the provisions that we put forward previously—that is, to ensure that people take the opportunity to enrol to vote in the ordinary course of the year. When we were in government, we ensured that the AEC had funds available to them to be able to promote enrolment. I think that is appropriate because, if you are a citizen, that is your duty; it is your responsibility.

I note that, in one of the dissenting judgments of the High Court, the observation was made—in terms of whether this was a discriminatory matter—that the burden that would fall on a person under the previous provisions was no greater or less. So there was no issue about discrimination. There was no issue about deliberate disenfranchisement. It was simply saying, ‘Get your enrolment in by a particular time and you’ll be on the roll.’ Everyone can take that opportunity on any day of the week, and I strongly suggest they do so, because I do not think we can continue to celebrate the richness of our democracy when one in seven people are basically not fulfilling their obligations under the Electoral Act.

That is not a situation I would like to see continue, and I would hope all members of the House would agree with me on that. I think the way to improve those numbers is not by taking the low road of lowering standards, which is what we are seeing here with this bill, but by taking the high road of saying: ‘You’re a citizen; take up that responsibility, take up the pledge you’ve made, take up the birthright that you’ve inherited and enrol to vote. Do it properly and show up.’ That is the best way to celebrate democracy in this country.

The other section of the bill relates to voting by prisoners. I thought the shadow minister, the member for Mackellar, made her points very clearly in this area—very clearly indeed. Under the previous government, we took the view that a person who was serving a custodial sentence should be denied that franchise. Why? Because they had volunteered up that right through the actions that resulted in their custodial sentence and got them in there in the first place.

When you transgress against a society in this way, when you violate the rights of others in a country like this, you give up certain rights that you have. That is the consequence of your actions. The previous government had a strong view that the franchise should not be extended to people who violate the rights of our community and of our country. The High Court had some things to say about this matter. What they disputed was not the ability to limit the franchise but whether it could be done universally. The coalition has flagged that the limitation of the franchise for people with a custodial sentence should apply to those who have a sentence of one year or more, not three years as this bill suggests.

The member for Mackellar made some very good observations about the types of people who would be given the franchise under the Labor Party’s proposal—those who have violated the rights of the community in heinous ways. I am not going to get into a discussion of the sentencing practices of courts, because I think there is a widespread community view on most matters. But what is relevant here is: where are we going to set the bar for citizens, or others who are living in this country under a visa, to be given the right to vote?

Citizens of this country who have transgressed in such a heinous way are denied the vote—and the member for Mackellar mentioned everything from assault, to sexual assault and a range of other offences which all of us in this place would decry. This government is saying that those offences, those actions against your fellow citizens, should not deny you the vote. Well, we disagree. If the government wants to argue that those who have done those things and have been sentenced for these things and sit in prisons today because of their own actions should still have the right to line up to vote—like every other citizen in this country who has not done these things or who has made amends for these things and is living freely in the community and doing their best to uphold the responsibilities of citizenship—then let the government make that case. Let the government put those who have done these things on an equal footing with other Australian citizens.

But the coalition will not do it. The coalition feels very strongly that this bill has some serious flaws. We will be addressing those flaws. We will be saying that Australians should uphold the responsibilities of citizenship by enrolling to vote. We should not have a lazy franchise in this country. We should not have a passive democracy. We should celebrate our democracy by upholding the standards and principles of our democratic system and expecting all citizens to celebrate them by living up to them.